Marketers berry the data

June ACCN
FOOD

“Blueberry” is a magic term these days when it comes to marketing. Supermarket shelves brim with blueberry yogurts, muffin mixes, waffles, juices, and even blueberry pills — all with subtly implied health benefits. So it may seem surprising there is not a single study documenting that eating blueberries on a regular basis makes people healthier. Why then have marketers placed these berries on a pedestal, anointing them as a “superfood?” It’s all a matter of blueberry-picking some data.

Certainly, there is no shortage of publications that focus on blueberries. There are studies about rats maneuvering a maze more quickly as well as balancing more adroitly on a narrow rod when blueberries are added to their diet. When it comes to humans, there is an increase in the blood’s antioxidant status after eating blueberries and a reduction in free radical damage to fats and proteins. Basically, this means a reduction in biomarkers of “oxidative stress” which is believed to be linked to disease and aging.

Of course, it is not only blueberries that have shown such effects. Virtually every berry from blackberry and strawberry to elderberry and chokeberry (aronia) show similar results with rodents and in test tubes. The purported health benefits are usually ascribed to anthocyanins, compounds that have antioxidant effects and are also responsible for the colour of berries.

Blueberries

Remember though, that there is no established cause-and-effect relationship between the consumption of antioxidants and health. What we do know is that populations that eat lots of fruits and vegetables tend to be healthier, but whether this is due to the presence of antioxidants is not clear. That conundrum, however, does not stop the hype about antioxidants. Although there is no evidence that consuming anthocyanins in berries or in pills improves health, there is evidence that the word “blueberry” on a label improves sales.

Just as the dose makes the poison, the dose also determines any possible health benefit. I think we would all agree that eating one blueberry will do nothing for us, but half a cup eaten every day might do so. That has been the standard amount used in the rodent experiments. When we see “blueberry” on a food label, the first question that should spring to mind is “how much?” With blueberry yogurt, you can’t tell. The only bit of information is “blueberry on the bottom.” It certainly is far from half a cup. And that bit of blueberry comes with about 21 grams of added sugar which is half of all the added sugar that should be consumed in a day!

Now let’s move on to a blueberry muffin mix that sports an asterisk after “blueberry.” You will have to look for the fine print to learn that the asterisk means: “artificial flavor.” Flavour chemists have been able to approximate natural blueberry flavor with a blend of linalool, trans-2-hexenol, trans-2-hexenal, cis-3-hexenol and cis-3-hexenal. While these may not necessarily be found in natural blueberry flavor, they present no health issue. Note, though, that there are no anthocyanins since these compounds are not flavor components. Half a cup of this mix has 28 grams of sugar, a significant amount.

Blueberry flavoured “Eggos” hype that they contain no artificial flavours or colours. But neither do they contain any blueberries, despite the plump berries featured on the box! What they do have are “blueberry nuggets” — bits of dried blueberry embedded in a mix of sugar, flour, corn starch, colour, vegetable oil, natural flavor, maltodextrin, cellulose gum, mono and di-glycerides, and baking soda. Mercifully, one waffle only has 3 grams of sugar. And it does have a blueberry flavor. However, you can forget about any health benefits.

How about blueberry drinks? According to the producers of one that goes by the modest name of “a+ superfruit,” they “believe fruits have natural benefits that can bring positive effects to your daily life.” They may well believe that, but how much benefit is there in this drink? Is a glass equivalent to half a cup of berries? A whole cup? We cannot tell, because the listed ingredients are blueberries, blueberry juice and organic maple water. We have no idea how much juice and how much water. What we do know is that one cup has 17 grams of sugar.

The best idea, of course, is to eat the blueberries themselves. How much do we have to eat a day to have a benefit? Nobody knows. Nor do we even know that there is a benefit to be had. Except for the taste, which is more than enough benefit for me!